Over the past eight years, Clive Cholerton has directed several of Stephen Sondheim’s challenging musicals, first at the now defunct Caldwell Theatre and more recently at Palm Beach Dramaworks.
Although he considers the 1979 “musical thriller,” Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, to be the composer-lyricist’s masterpiece, Cholerton had shied away from producing the bloody revenge tale. Until now.
“I’ve always been terrified of this show,” he explains. “The original production of it is, I think, a perfect production. Everything since has been a compromise in my opinion. So there was a feeling of ‘OK, it’s been done. And it’s been done perfectly. What do I have to bring to the table?’ ”
The answer came when he accepted that the original, epic Harold Prince-staged version was indeed perfection, but it was now nearly 40 years old. The question Cholerton posed to himself was, “How does the same story resonate in 2017?”
The story of Sweeney Todd, which stems from a 19th-century British “penny dreadful” folk tale, concerns an expert in the tonsorial arts sent to prison by a corrupt judge who had lecherous designs on the barber’s wife and – more recently – on his daughter. Now back in London and obsessed with vengeance against the judge, Sweeney reopens his shop with the hope of luring his prey in for an exceedingly close shave. While he waits, he slits the throats of his customers for practice and his pragmatic landlady, Nellie Lovett, suggests baking the corpses into meat pies. Yeah, My Fair Lady, it’s not.
While the Victorian yarn has been popular with audiences for centuries, Cholerton believes it is particularly apt today. “Right now, it obviously has a resonance in terms of a world in which we are faced with mass murderers on all too regular a basis.” He says. “So that was somewhat of a starting point for me.”
Cholerton had a visual epiphany when Dramaworks’ resident costume designer Brian O’Keefe mentioned “steampunk,” a subgenre of science fiction that incorporates technology and aesthetics inspired by 19th-century steam-powered machinery. Being on the far side of 50, Cholerton readily concedes that he had no idea what steampunk was, but O’Keefe showed him wardrobe design sketches based on the literary style. As Cholerton researched it further, he discovered steampunk’s retro sexuality.
“And that’s when I knew how to cast it,” the director says. “Now I knew the story I wanted to tell.”
Although he held auditions in New York, Cholerton ultimately cast as Sweeney a familiar face to South Florida theatergoers – Shane Tanner – who has appeared in most of the director’s staged musical concerts and in last summer’s fully staged 1776.
“The most important thing with Sweeney is you have to understand how this human being felt this was his only way of acting out his emotional anguish,” says Cholerton. “I think more times than not, people show up at the beginning already crazy. And that has no interest for me at all.”
Beyond having the nearly operatic vocal chops to sing the role of Sweeney, Cholerton says of Tanner, “He’s also the nicest, sweetest, most delicious human being you could ever meet. Yet Shane has the ability to tap into dark places very easily.”
But Tanner was almost unavailable, having taken a full-time job as house manager at The Wick Theatre, promising his boss, Marilynn Wick, that he would put his performance career on hold for a year. “We made a little deal, that I wouldn’t take any shows this season and she promised me I’d have a full time salary,” says Tanner.
Still the role of Sweeney Todd had long been on Tanner’s bucket list, a towering part that was simply too good to pass up. “When I’m an old guy laying in my bed, I don’t want to look back with regret thinking, ‘I should have put myself out there a little more than usual,’” for the prized role.
So Tanner inquired if the role of Sweeney was already cast and, hearing it was still available, he auditioned and earned it. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world to see someone who we’ve worked with, come in and win it. I have so much respect for him,” says Cholerton. “He wanted it, and there’s nothing more attractive to me than a hungry actor. And talent always helps too.”
For Mrs. Lovett, he chose the less familiar British-born Ruthie Stephens, who had made her South Florida debut two years ago as acid-dry Countess Charlotte in Dramaworks’ A Little Night Music.
“In terms of Mrs. Lovett, I really see her as very much a Lady M(acbeth) figure, the person pulling a lot of the strings,” says Cholerton. “And so, what I wanted was a real sexuality to her. Ruthie has the perfect blend of humor, sexuality and ability to sing. She has it all.”
Not surprisingly, Mrs. Lovett was a role that Stephens was intent on playing one day. “Oh, yeah, definitely. I just thought it might come a bit later. But I’m very happy to be doing it now, while I’ve got all my marbles,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.
“For the audition, I had a bit of a heads-up about the steampunk thing, which helped. So I dressed in something kind of steampunkish, this crazy outfit, and everyone else was dressed like an old lady,” recalls Stephens. “So I felt like a complete idiot, but it worked out.”
Also in the 13-member cast are Michael McKenzie as Judge Turpin, Jim Ballard as Beadle Bamford, Shelley Keelor as the Beggar Woman and, making their Dramaworks debuts, Paul Louis Lessard (Anthony Hope) and Evan Jones (Tobias Ragg) and Alex Mansoori (Adolfo Pirelli).
From a performer’s perspective, Sondheim is “the Shakespeare of musical theater,” suggests Stephens. “In a funny way, it is easy to learn because it’s so well-written. It just flows. It has the right rhythms. It makes sense. That’s what I find amazing about Sondheim. It’s so challenging, but you pick it up easily because it’s just perfectly crafted.”
“There’s not one wasted note, not one wasted syllable, in any of his shows,” adds Tanner. “With this particular one, they did all the work. We just have to go in there and make it honest.”
The show’s book by Hugh Wheeler – who also adapted A Little Night Music for the stage – is credited with building and sustaining the story’s suspense. “To me, the real brilliance of Hugh Wheeler is his incredible restraint in the book,” says Cholerton. “His knowing he needs very little book, because when we get into those heightened places, music takes over. The subtlety of it.”
Sweeney Todd looms as the must-see theater event of this summer. “Primarily, Sondheim has said, time and time again, he wrote this show for people to have a — quote – ‘bloody good time’ – unquote,” says Tanner. He was a great fan of the old ’50s and ’60s horror movies, any of those suspense movies that were orchestrated by Bernard Hermann.”
“If you haven’t seen ‘Sweeney Todd,’ you have a massive gap in your theatrical education. You must see it,” adds Stephens emphatically. “Every production has its own life, it’s own point of view and story to tell. Ours certainly does and it’s funny. There’s a lot of humor in it, a lot of dark humor.”
“It is the greatest musical ever written,” concludes Cholerton bluntly. “I do think we’re going to do our own unique take on it. I think this is very much a ‘Sweeney Todd’ for 2017.”
SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. July 14–Aug. 6, $67, 561-514-4042.